The International Association for Literary Journalism Studies (IALJS) has some cracking meetings – gonzo journalism being a recent subject – and the next one is about ‘immersion journalism’. It is, they say, what Martha Gellhorn, a US war reporter for the US weekly magazine Collier’s during the Second World War, would have called ‘the view from the ground’.
The concept of the female war correspondent dates back at least to Sarah Wilson and Elizabeth Charlotte Briggs, who reported on the Boer Wars in the 1890s for the Daily Mail and Morning Post newspapers, respectively.
Gellhorn began writing in the 1920s and then went with Ernest Hemingway in 1936 to cover the Spanish Civil War. She married him in 1940, but they split up five years later. The Spanish conflict was the start of a career that saw her flying off to cover just about every war she could find until she developed cancer and later killed herself in 1998. Another American woman famous in the role was Lee Miller. She did so as a photographer, at first as a freelance and then from 1940 for Vogue. She was famously pictured soaping herself in Hitler’s bath. After the war, she married the artist Roland Penrose and settled in Britain.
These female correspondents were glamorous figures, and were depicted in a short story, ‘No Other Love’ by Leonie Mason (a pseudonym of Winifred Walker), in Woman in February 1945. The illustration, credited to ‘Koolman: Carlton’, shows two women in a Paris café. One is in uniform with the designation ‘Official War Correspondent’ on her shoulder; she is ‘Julie Wilson’ a British reporter for a paper called the Daily Record (there was then, and still is, a Glasgow paper of that name). On the table between them alongside what look like coffees in tall glasses with metal holders is a packet of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a US brand relaunched in 1942 with a white packet designed by Raymond Loewy to appeal to women.
Gellhorn wrote reports and fiction for magazines throughout the war and after, with her short stories being published in both Britain and, the US. As I show in my book, British Magazine Design, ‘The Long Journey’, for example, was published in the June 1952 issue of Good Housekeeping and then Woman’s Own (December 4). Other examples have titles such as ‘Come Ahead, Adolf!’ (Collier’s, Aug 6, 1938); ‘Dachau: Experimental Murder’ (Collier’s, Jun 23 1945); ‘Java journey’ (Saturday Evening Post, Jun 1, 1946); and ‘The Lowest Trees Have Tops’ (Ladies’ Home Journal, Aug 1967). The Fiction Mags Index has a substantial list.
As the literary journalism academics explain, such work ‘uses in-depth, on-the-scene reporting, research and literary techniques to take readers into worlds that would otherwise be off limits’. They also give a more technical definition:
Immersion attempts to address the limits of conventional reporting by replacing the emphasis on deadlines and objectivity with long-term observation and the building of enduring — and often psychologically and dramatically complex — reporter-source relationships.
Immersion practices link literary journalism to other disciplines, primarily anthropology and sociology, with their emphasis on the role of the participant observer and “thick” description techniques used in ethnographies.
Historically, immersion journalism often imbued reporters with a distinct moral authority to call for social reforms. Current discussions of immersion techniques highlight the ethical dilemmas of being part of the story, the quest for authenticity, and the necessity of finding narrative in the “every day-ness” of immersion. The economics of the news business also factor in. How can journalism now afford the time and resource-intense practice of immersion? How will traditional immersion techniques fare in contrast to new technologies of interactivity and virtual reality that purport to give the reader an “immersive” experience?
Immersion also presents a challenge to the pedagogy of literary journalism. What practices are best for teaching immersion, particularly given that few students will have the schedule and financial support to attempt it?
The IALJS sessions will take place at the annual meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications in the US city of Chicago on August 9-12. It is titled ‘The View from the Ground: Rethinking Immersion.’ The editors are seeking academic submissions.